The Byzantine government, as all governments, became extremely bureaucratic and corrupt. The culture divided into what we would call a right and left wing system of politics. The roots of this real divide grew out of sports and rival competing teams. These team associations grew and had become a focus for various social and political issues within the Eastern Roman Empire that was primarily Greek. This rivalry combined every aspect that to a large extent it was the classic poor v rich resentment that has always torn society apart at the seams.
In this respect, this classic difference embraced street gangs that would rob those with anything as well as small business owners. This resentment even filtered into political parties, taking positions on current issues, that then spread into theological differences. This idea that God created all men equal has been used by the “poor” to justify taking the possessions of anyone they deem to be “rich”, which is defined as anyone having more than they do. Adopting Christianity did not help for they ignored the Ten Commandments that prohibited coveting their neighbor’s goods in favor of this concept it is not fair for anyone to have something more than average. This is the typical equality battle cry that has echoed throughout the centuries and still dominates politics to this day.
We often find violent arguments in religion and the Byzantine Empire, while pretending to be Christian, was anything other than love their brother. During the fifth and sixth centuries, these religious disputes became exceptionally violent. This dispute filtered even into support or dislike for claimants to the throne as we saw in England between Protestants and Catholics. Byzantium, despite its Christian claims, was anything but a place that followed such a creed.
Religion often was used to influence the policy of the emperors in post-Constantine era as it was in Japan as well. Of course, this clash eventually led to violent persecutions for even having images of Jesus Christ and Saints by the 8th and 9th centuries known as the Iconoclastic Controversy.
This trend of dividing society into two primary opposing groups (Blues & Greens) spread into political turmoil that led to shouting political demands between the chariot races in the Hippodrome at the Emperor whose Palace was adjacent to it and allowed him to watch the chariot races.
Justinian had established a commission in 528AD and recodified the Rule of Law that produced a legal code in 529AD and 530AD, followed by the Digest in 533AD. Justinian’s legal reforms attempted to root out corruption and this proved to be very unpopular with the beneficants on each side. This attempt at reform contributed to the political unrest that was agitated and erupted into the Nika Revolt of 532AD. This riot was fueled behind the curtain by powerful opposing forces on each side.
In 531AD, some members of the Blues and Greens had been arrested for murder in connection with deaths that occurred during rioting after a recent chariot race. Much as violence breaks out at soccer games in Europe, the same commonality of limited riots accompanied the chariot races. The murderers were to be hanged, however, on January 10th, 532, two of them, a Blue and a Green, escaped and were taking refuge in the sanctuary of a church surrounded by an angry mob.
Justinian was in the middle of trying to negotiate peace with the Persians in the east simply to reduce government expenditure. There was the economic resentment over high taxes, which fueled this trend of poor v rich that was brewing into a major political conflict. Justinian declared that a chariot race would be held on January 13th and commuted the sentences to imprisonment of the murderers to suppress the rising anger that saw this as part of the political issues at hand. The angry mob of both the Blues and Greens responded by demanding that the two men be pardoned entirely. When the two factions arrived at the Hippodrome for the races, the resentment merely erupted into major violence.
The angry mob began shouting insults at Justinian who was watching the race from the Palace. By the end of the day, the chants suddenly changed from “Blue” or “Green” to a unified Nίκα (“Nika”, meaning “Win!” or “Conquer!”). The mob broke out and began to assault the palace for once unified. The palace fell under virtual siege for 5 days and people were fed up with the high taxes. The mob set fires that began to spread and much of the city now was engulfed in the flames. The flames even claimed the city’s foremost church, the original Hagia Sophia.
Emboldened by the 5 days of rioting that the local police and military troops would not suppress, some of the Senators drew the courage to call for the overthrow Justinian, for they were opposed to his new tax proposals that even targeted the rich making him unpopular even among the nobility. The mob now demanded that Justinian dismiss the prefect John the Cappadocian, who was responsible for tax collecting, and the quaestor Tribonian, who was responsible for rewriting the legal code.
The lack of support from the police and military embolden them even further and they then declared a new emperor, Hypatius, who was a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I. Justinian now feared for his own life and was considering fleeing to save himself. However, his wife Theodora (500-548AD) who reigned between 527AD and 565AD in Constantinople as Empress who assumed control. She had been an actress and in those days typically meant a prostitute. She did have one child before being married. Yet she was a famed beauty and very intelligent. She became the mistress of the heir to the throne, Justinian who married her in 525AD raising quite a scandal. When he succeeded to the throne, he crowned her Augusta (Empress).
Her intelligence made her a respected adviser to her husband and she even championed religious theories. Yet when rioting broke out in the Hippodrome between the right and left wing political factions, it was Theodora who rose to the occasion and told her husband to stay. She then instructed General Belisarius to defend the city who had an army outside of Constantinople composed of troops who were not Greeks, but from Western Europe.
Theodora sent Narses, a popular eunuch, into the Hippodrome armed with only a bag of gold coins. Narses entered the Hippodrome alone and unarmed to face the murderous mob that had already killed hundreds. Narses went directly to the Blues’ section, where he approached the important Blue leaders and reminded them that Emperor Justinian supported them over the Greens. He also reminded them that the man they were crowning, Hypatius, was a Green. Narses then distributed the gold. The Blue leaders spoke quietly with each other and then they spoke to their followers. Then, in the middle of Hypatius’s coronation, the Blues stormed out of the Hippodrome. The Greens sat, stunned. It was at this time when General Belisarius stormed into the Hippodrome with his foreign legions and slaughtered the remaining rebels. Reports put the death toll were about 30,000. Justinian also had Hypatius executed and exiled all the senators who had supported the riot. From the ashes, Justinian then rebuilt Constantinople and the church destroyed by fire – the Hagia Sophia, which still stands to this day. Justinian was then free to pursue his ultimate goal, the reunification of the Roman Empire.
The important lesson from this affair was never local troops and police will not always kill their own neighbors. The key is use mercenaries to wield the authoritative power against the people to maintain absolute ruthless control.